MOSCOW/PRAGUE (Reuters) - Russian leader Vladimir Putin welcomed his Czech opposite number Milos Zeman in the Kremlin on Saturday, cementing the warm relationship Zeman and his entourage have maintained with Moscow even as other European leaders have pulled away.
The Czech president was the only European Union leader to meet Putin bilaterally on Saturday, a day when Moscow usually hosts dozens of world leaders to mark the anniversary of the end of World War Two but which most have this year boycotted over Russia's intervention in Ukraine.
"Mr President, you know that we didn't initiate the chill in relations with Europe," Putin told Zeman. "But I hope, that thanks to such politicians as you, we would be able to restore (relations) not only as they had been previously, but that they will move forward."
Zeman has long been sympathetic to Russia but the stance stands out especially now, at a time when most of his European Union peers are keeping their distance from the Kremlin because they disapprove of its conduct in Ukraine.
The Czech president has described Western sanctions imposed on Russia as "nonsense" and disputed assertions by NATO and Western governments that Russian soldiers are fighting in Ukraine.
"I'm fully confident that the sanctions are short-term ... I publicly protested against the sanctions," Zeman told the Russian president.
The Czech government, rather than the president, controls most levers in foreign policy, and it has stuck closely to the European line on how to deal with Russia, according to diplomats in Prague and Brussels.
Allies of the Czech president say his stance is driven by a sincere belief that isolating Moscow is counter-productive, and that commercial ties to Russia are vital for the Czech economy.
Over the years that stance has helped forge a network of personal ties between Zeman, his associates, and the Russian business elite clustered around the Kremlin.
Zeman is a regular visitor to an annual forum on the Greek island of Rhodes hosted by a civil society group whose founder is Vladimir Yakunin, the head of Russian state railways and a long-time friend of Putin.
Zeman has traveled to the forum about eight times between 2003 and 2014, according to his office.
Yakunin, who is on a list of people subject to U.S. government sanctions over Ukraine, told Reuters during a visit to the Swiss city of Geneva in March that Zeman is "actually my rather close friend ... He has a very sharp brain. And he sees things and is not afraid to express his opinion about things."
An adviser to Zeman, Martin Nejedly, is also a co-owner of a Czech subsidiary of Russian energy firm Lukoil which supplies fuel at Prague airport, company filings show. Nejedly, who has an office in the presidential palace in Prague, was in business in Russia for many years.
Czech news agency CTK said Nejedly also took part in the meeting with Putin on Saturday.
Around 1998, he was hired by Czech firm Plynostav Pardubice to work on deals in Russia with state entities including the Kremlin's gas monopoly Gazprom.
"He was a very capable expert, and above all he spoke perfect Russian," said Frantisek Fiser, who was chief executive of the company and hired Nejedly as the firm's Russian representative. The firm is no longer operating.
"He was in Russia for some time before we had met ... Thanks to his very good social skills, he was able to gather valuable information," Fiser, now retired, said.
Nejedly had no comment on his dealings with Zeman.
Another Zeman associate, communist-era army colonel Zdenek Zbytek, also has business ties to Russia. Some of his companies are based in a building in Prague owned by the Russian state, according to property records seen by Reuters. Zbytek told Reuters he paid commercial rates for the premises.
Jaroslav Basta, a former Czech minister and ambassador to Moscow, said Zbytek helped Czech companies navigate the Russian markets and "opened doors for them".
Among the deals Zbytek helped arrange was the export of power and transport equipment to customers including a regional subsidiary of Gazprom. He is also vice-chairman of a Czech entrepreneurs' council on cooperation with Russia.
In 2009, Zbytek helped found the party that became the driving force behind Zeman's successful presidential bid in 2013. He is currently deputy head of a regional chapter of the party.
Responding to questions from Reuters, Zbytek said he was not an adviser to the president and did not help formulate his views.
A spokesman for Zeman denied that the business interests of Zbytek or Nejedly had any influence on the president.
"The president decides absolutely autonomously, there can be no talk about any influence of the above-mentioned business activity," the spokesman said. "(Zbytek) is not an adviser to the president, there are no consultations taking place."
(Writing by Christian Lowe; Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva and Robert Muller in Prague; Editing by Andrew Roche)